Guest Post: Contributory, Collaborative, and Co-Creative Experiences

By: Dr. Robert Connolly

In a recent issue of the journal Collections (Vol. 7, Number 3, Summer 2011), Natalye Tate and I published an article titled “Volunteers and Collections as Viewed from the Museum Mission Statement.”  Our central thesis is that museums should not view volunteers as folks who do things for which there are not enough staff to complete. Rather, we argue that museums as public institutions should view volunteers as integral to their mission mandates to provide educational and participatory experiences.

We use a scheme presented by Nina Simon in her book The Participatory Museum to model Contributory, Collaborative and Co-creative experiences for museum volunteers.  The model is also applicable in the field of public history.

Memory board at the Rock’n’Soul Museum in Memphis, TN

Contributory Experiences are those where the public has very limited input around specific projects that are controlled by the institution. The engagement is generally brief and limited in scope.  Oral history interviews, focus groups, ethnographic mapping, and a host of other types of experiences fall into this category.  The ever popular sticky note on the wall or memory board is a common example. The participant’s desire for an opportunity to contribute at least a piece of their story, experience, or response is achieved. The institution benefits through the active engagement with the community and obtains information from the public.

Collaborative Experiences are those where the public participate as active partners in processes that are ultimately controlled by the museum. The museum sets the broad parameters in which the public operates and actively collaborates and engages with participants to be certain the project is successful. The collaborative participant is trained or possesses the skills necessary to work under less direct supervision than in contributory projects. The collaborative participant begins to envision the institution more as a support for their interests and development opportunities with their community.

City of Memory Project

A good example of a collaborative experience in public history is the City of Memory project in New York.  The public is invited to upload videos of their stories of living in New York.  The program is administered through Local Projects that in turn completely relies on public collaboration to obtain stories for the project.  Without the public input the project could not exist.  However, Local Projects ultimately determines which stories are presented on the website.  This theme of participant control in digital space is taken up in Part I of the new release Letting Go: Sharing Historical Authority in a User Generated World edited by Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene and Laura Koloski.

Smithsonian “SITES” Affiliate

Co-creative Experiences are those where the public work directly with institutions to create products based on community interests.  Co-creative participants have considerably more latitude in the creative process. In co-creative experiences the primary function of the institution is to provide the tools and logistical support for product creation.  The institution also is charged with being certain that the process and final product remains within the project parameters as defined by the granting or governing agency. Co-creative participants have a vested interest in the project and its completion.

An example of a co-creative project is the local component of the Smithsonian traveling exhibit The Way We Worked created at the Orange Mound Community Service Center in Memphis, Tennessee.  A consortium of cultural heritage professionals including faculty from the University of Memphis Museum Studies Graduate Certificate Program worked with residents of Orange Mound to create a series of photographic and didactic panels on the concept of work in this traditional African-American community of Memphis.  The consortium of technical “experts” functioned in service to the community residents who completely determined the content of the local exhibit that included defining the very concept of work during the Jim Crow Era.

“The Way We Worked” at Orange Mound Community Center

Of importance, in the Collections article we note that the three types of Experiences are not to be viewed as a hierarchy.  Rather the three types of Experiences are correctly viewed as flowing directly from the specific research questions being asked.  For example, in considering the three above examples, trying to operate a focus group as a co-creative project could not work.  In the same way, the very nature of the Orange Mound exhibit required considerably more community engagement than a contributory experience.

However, all three types are participatory experiences.  Participatory experiences aid in demonstrating the relevance of cultural heritage to the public.  Whether in museums, government, or academic institutions, we function as public servants.  As professionals, we are all on the public dole one way or the other.  We must be accountable and demonstrate our relevance to the public we serve.  I believe part of that public service is an educational process where the public we serve learns to demand of us that we properly curate their cultural heritage.  In appreciation that need, the public also takes on the responsibility for adequately funding that process.  Participatory experiences are one tool for bringing about that mutual understanding.

Robert Connolly is an Associate Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Memphis and is the Director of the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa. Follow his blog at:

TAM Reflections, 2012

TAM makes us SING!

Last year I wrote a review of my Tennessee Association of Museum conference experience and how much that meeting meant to me.  This year it is coming a bit late, but I did still want to express how wonderful this annual conference is, and what it can mean for you as a museum professional or student.  The event was held in Memphis, which has a dear place in my heart.  Since I essentially started my academic career in museum studies at the University of Memphis, and I worked in several of the community museums, I was excited to get back to the city for a conference devoted to the Rock, Rhythm, and Soul of Museums.

First of all, the entire event I was surrounded by like-minded people who are all working towards similar goals.  The bonding experiences that take place at conferences, especially at special events and in the hospitality suite, are invaluable.  Sessions are obviously places where you can learn and share ideas.

Auction fun-times at the Metal Museum

Q&As during and after sessions and panels are also great experiences for meeting new people and learning about new opportunities.

One of the best things about TAM is the opportunity to visit area museums for social gatherings, dinners, the annual auction, and tours.  This year we visited the Brooks Museum of Art, Fire Museum, Metal Museum, and the National Civil Rights Museum.  These events provided places for professionals to see what museums in the mid-south are doing and talk about ideas and successes.  They also had some fun interactive exhibits, such as the fire pole at the Fire Museum, which was a big hit with everyone.

The Music Tour group at Rock N Soul Museum

Several of us also took advantage of the opportunity to go on a pre-conference tour of the music-related sites that Memphis is famous for.  We went to the Rock’n’Soul Museum, Sun Studio, and the STAX Museum of American Soul Music.  There is never enough time to see everything, but we got a good taste of the great opportunities these museums offer to the Memphis community.  Even though I lived in Memphis for two years, I never had a chance to visit Rock ‘n’ Soul or STAX, so I was grateful for the opportunity to visit these places with other museum people.  Sun Studio will always be one of my favorite sites in the city, so I couldn’t pass up the chance to visit again.  And we got to see Issac Hayes’ car, AND have a dance party.  Awesome.

One the most essential (and sometimes overlooked) part of the conference was the sessions.  I didn’t go to as many sessions as I would have liked, since I was stressing over presenting my own session for the first time at TAM.   They had many great sessions for small museums, and workshops to share ideas.  A session I did get to go to was, “Help Is on the Way! What MAP Can Do for You” with the American Association of MuseumsMuseum Assessment Program coordinator, Laura Silberman.   The main reason I wanted to attend this session is because Dr. Robert Connolly from Chucalissa shared the experiences he and the staff at Chucalissa experienced when going through this process.  Since I was a part of the MAP assessment team as a graduate student but a graduate by the time the assessment took place, I was excited to hear the changes that came about because of the program.

Natalye, rockin’ the session

The session, “Challenges and Benefits of Community Engagement: Lessons from Three Memphis Museums,” was one that I felt I had to attend.  My former professor, Dr. Leslie Luebbers, and fellow University of Memphis alumni and Chucalissa co-worker Natalye Tate were among the presenters.  The session explored the museums’ challenges, how they were negotiated.  They also talked about how the programs benefited the community and the museum, which is an essential part of museums that many times is forgotten in the everyday operations of the museum.  The Museum Studies program at Memphis has an entire class, taught by Dr. Luebbers,  all about communities and museums.

Sam, presenting like a rock star

As a student of Museum 2.0 and Nina Simon via Robert Connolly’s 2008 Museum Practices class, the session “The Participatory Museum: More Than Just a Hands-on Gig” was a must for me.  The session looked at the different types of participatory visitor experiences.  Presenters, all from the C.H. Nash Museum at Chucalissa also talked about various case studies where visitors play an active role in determining exhibit content and move toward a stakeholder role in the institution.  Samantha Gibbs, my coworker while I was a graduate assistant, did a great job explaining the programs she developed with the participatory museum in mind!

Conference fun times!

Finally, it was a great experience to have so many people who have supported me since I started this path of museum studies at my session encouraging me and my research, as well as so many fellow graduate students and friends from MTSU.  It was a great mix of my “old” friends and coworkers in Memphis with my “new” public history and Murfreesboro friends, and I couldn’t do any of this without them.

Here’s to them!!  Enjoy these photos from the conference and the special events (especially the auction).

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